Catholics today often feel the need to legitimise the Faith by touting its contribution to the common good. Often these claims understate the extent of that contribution. It is fruitful to place achievements within their context and remember that Catholics have been educators, healers and defenders of the downtrodden.
St Basil the Great (AD 330-379) is a hero with an incredible legacy. Because of his personal holiness, devotion to the liturgy, zeal for orthodoxy and incredible care for souls, he is a demonstration of the Catholic contribution to the common good, a model for bishops and a saint for our time.
Two of the most impressive initiatives of St Basil were the invention of the hospital and private confession. St Basil was also the founder of eastern monasticism, where ascetics lived in community, rather than in isolation. The Mass, for which St Basil wrote his own liturgy, was the centre of his life and animated his service to the poor, in whom Christ is also present in a sense.
Meaning of suffering
Seeing the suffering around him in Caesarea, he and his monks took to alleviating it in whatever way they could. Their understanding of the Christian meaning of suffering is what made the monks value the poor for they shared in the suffering of Christ and in Christ himself: "I was sick and you took care of me."
Not only were they devoted to the poor with their hearts but also with their minds. They created the first "basilicas" which were sophisticated and substantial complexes for the care of the sick and poor, resembling the hospital as we know it today. Basil loved Christ above all things, which led him to value poverty, humility and suffering. He could see the human dignity of the poor because he looked with the eyes of Christ. This stood in stark contrast to the pagan spirit which did not exalt universal love as a virtue.
As such, it is important to remember that the Church is not just the world's largest NGO. It is much more, as Pope Francis has reminded us. There is a case to be made that the Church is the source of temporal charity as understood today, both metaphysically and historically. From St Basil's development of the hospital, the Catholic Church now operates more than 10% of Australia's healthcare and should be acknowledged for its contribution to the care provided in all other hospitals.
The practice of private confession is another important gift introduced by St Basil. Before the introduction of private confession, the sacrament of confession was made in public, to the priest in front of the congregation. The experience would have been painfully confronting with penitents then having to complete their penance before receiving absolution. During this interim, they had to stand outside the front door of the church on Sunday, wearing rags.
St Basil's monks would hear people's confessions privately to give them spiritual guidance but not absolution. This changed, however, and was considered beneficial for obvious reasons. Absolution was still given after the completion of penance but the process was no longer in front of the congregation. This practice was adopted by Irish monks who then spread it throughout mainland Europe when they helped to re-evangelise the continent. It became the standard form of confession as part of the Carolingian reforms approximately 500 years later.
St Basil's personal holiness was no doubt a factor behind his impressive achievements. He came from a wealthy, but very holy, family in Caesarea, which donated its assets to monasticism. His maternal grandfather was a martyr for the faith and several of his siblings were considered saints, most notably Gregory of Nyssa. St Basil's asceticism extended to sleeping on a wooden board at night, eating only one bread meal a day and continuously wearing the same coarse habit. In his vigour as an administrator he seemed to give his entire being to the service of God. It was quite possibly due to these stresses that he died at the age of fifty.
St Basil also had great devotion to the Scriptures, which he argued were a foundation of the faith. He argued that we should take the words of Our Lord seriously, believe what He said and follow what He taught. Consequently, St Basil believed that the Scriptures revealed the traditional teachings of the Catholic faith, including the Real Presence, the efficacy of confession and service to the poor. His belief in traditional doctrine, and his emphasis on Scripture and life during the early years of the Church, would stand at odds with the later Protestant positions.
St Basil the Great remains a prime example of integration in Catholic life, his religion being the basis for his great concern for those who suffered. Likewise, he contributed significantly to the world around him and to the development of the Church. His spirit of mercy must surely be confronting to both the new atheism and to some strands of Protestantism for he was an inspiring bishop who embraced asceticism, defended the Faith, cared deeply for the suffering and brought the faithful closer to the sacraments.
It would profit us all greatly to learn from this outstanding Doctor of the Church.